Pokémon Go: My First Adventure

Developer: Niantic
First Release: 6th July, 2016
Version Played: iPhone 5S (iOS)
Length: Endless
Available: Android and Apple iOS

Pokémon Go is an augmented reality (AR) game that runs on mobile devices. It’s based on the popular Pokémon series of games, with the general theme of catching, evolving and fighting cartoon animals. Game locations are in the real world, encouraging players to travel around. The basic game is free, though players can buy items to help them.

This is a journal of my first Pokémon Go adventure, as well as my overall thoughts on the game. I’ve played a few of the Nintendo DS Pokémon titles. This includes the one that came with a pedometer that let players earn things by walking. It turned out this was an issue, as I played those games in the USA, and I had a trainer account set to that region. I couldn’t change my region or my display name for the old account, which seems like really obvious things people might want to change. I had to start a new account. So the account side of it was not exactly at the cutting edge of account management systems, but at least I could get that set up in advance.

Something that’s an improvement on previous titles is it asks the player to choose a style, rather than asking if they’re a boy or a girl. I prefer it being framed as how I want my character to look, rather than my own gender (unless the game is going to actually let me enter my gender). In general though, there are very few options for the characters, which is an odd choice in a social game.

I caught my starter, a Bulbasaur, at home. The mechanism is to flick the ball on the screen with a finger. It’s a little tricky, but I got there in the end. Over the next few days, it became apparent there was a colony of bug Pokémon in the garden, as there were little flurries of leaves on the map and a few wandered inside. There were also quite a lot of bats over the road, in the house where someone was murdered, which was creepily accurate.

The game instructions are very sparse. I can understand why people think they have to walk towards Pokémon that appear on the map, because it seems logical. However, it isn’t required. As soon as they appear, they can be tapped and the catching process will begin. I could get those bats in the murder house without leaving my house.

starter

Image Caption: My hand holding a phone in my sitting room. On the screen, the image seen through the phone camera is shown. Bulbasaur (a green dinosaur with a plant bulb on the back) is sitting on a computer tower. A Poké Ball is on screen, with an arrow and hand icon showing how to throw it.

Finally, it was time, and the main adventure began. My fellow traveller was Spiritunicorn, because safe trainers go together, to deal with those really big Pokémon. We hadn’t gone far before a child shouted, “Excuse me. Are you playing Pokémon Go!?” I nodded, and they gave us a thumbs up. I’m apparently accidentally fashionable again. It happens sometimes.

There turned out to be quite a few PokéStops and Gyms nearby. The PokéStops let the player spin a coin for some rewards, such as more Poké Balls to catch Pokémon. The Gyms are where people can battle, but we were too low level for that at the start. All went well as we collected items and caught a few Pokémon on the way. We tried not to think too much about why we trusted this strange guy on the basis that he said he was a scientist. Why does he need all those Pokémon? What’s he doing with them? What’s actually in these pieces of candy we’re getting as rewards? I’m not saying this stranger was illegally harvesting animals, hiring children he could bribe with sweets without too many questions being asked, and liquidising the animals for his experiments. But it doesn’t exactly look like a proper catch and release programme to me.

Anyway, the choice of PokéStops was interesting. Quite a few are signs for things, rather than the things. An example is one sign that’s placed right next to the tower blocks. Unlike many towns, mine only has these few towers, so they’re a distinctive landmark. Other PokéStops were things like temporary artwork that was no longer there, so they’re lagged behind in history.

pokestop

Image Caption: On the right, a pale tower block with a sky blue stripe running down it. In front of the building is a sign with a map saying “Welcome to Greater Hollington”. The sign is the PokéStop. On the left, the image from the phone screen, showing a Spearow (bird Pokémon) sitting by the building, waiting to be caught.

We continued on towards the coast and the sea mist rolled in. I finally hit the level to join a team, which I did at the next Gym. It was a brick church with a tower. As the Gyms look like little towers on the map, this seemed rather apt. I went with Team Mystic because blue is a nice colour.

mapgym

Image Caption: On the right, a red brick church tower. On the left, the phone screen showing a character standing on a 3D map. Two gym towers are shown. The yellow one on the left is the church tower.

The available Pokémon should change based on the environment, which was clear on our outward route. Home had lots of bugs and a few birds. Asda had a bunch of rats around the back. And the coast had weird tentacle monsters and little lobsters with mushroom ears. The PokéStops also got a lot more historical as we moved into the older parts of town. One marked the house of Elsie Bowerman, a suffragette. Another marked the stone on the divide between the two towns, which is about the only sign it is two towns.

elsie

Image Caption: A blue history plaque on a wall, which is a PokéStop. The writing reads: Elsie Bowerman / 1889 – 1973 / Suffragette, Barrister and Survivor of the ‘Titanic’ disaster lived here / Hastings Borough Council.

Heading further into town, we stopped for lunch and to look around the shops. Pokémon Go players were everywhere. The town centre has a number of PokéStops, including the cricketer statue just outside the shopping centre. But other than Game promoting preorders of the next Pokémon DS title, the shops really weren’t getting in on it. If they’d had cuddly toys and other similar things, I’m sure people would have bought them.

Once we left town, we went through the park. The mist thinned, meaning it was a good time to recharge phones. Spiritunicorn has all the gadgets, so we plugged the phones into a solar panel. The game needs to be running in order to count the distance travelled, so it is hard on batteries.

solar

Image Caption: A portable solar panel on a wooden bench. Two phones are plugged in.

Across from our recharge point was another Gym, which I decided to try. It’s a war memorial with a figure on the top, because I have a thing about Gyms that look a bit like the Gym icons on the map.

It wasn’t an epic battle. I did manage to damage the Gym guardian a bit though. I bet that stung for a few seconds. It’s trickier than usual Pokémon games, as it isn’t turn based. Dodging and attacking are done in real time. It’s hard to say how good I was at that, as my Pokémon were so underpowered.

gym

Image Caption: On the right, a white pillar with a statue on top, viewed across the water. A flock of pigeons are between the pillar and the water. On the left, the phone screen showing a Paras (orange lobster with mushroom ears) fighting a Hypno (yellow biped).

Another unexpected thing about battles is the healing system. Potions are the only way of healing them up. I would have liked to see an alternative to this, like having Pokémon heal over time or by travelling a certain distance.

By the time we got to the end of the park, our phones were getting very low on batteries. We turned them off and headed home. All in all, we walked about 15km (9 miles). It only used 20MB of my phone’s data allowance, though this may be on the low side as the maps would have loaded through my home Wi-Fi. I caught many Pokémon and got a few nice shots through the game’s camera system.

pokemon

Image Caption: Three images taken with the game’s own camera system. Left is a Paras (orange lobster with mushroom ears) on a shingle beach, with the water and mist in the distance. Centre is a Pidgey (bird) on grey pavement stones, with people and scaffolding in the background. Right is a Zubat (blue bat) flying in a garden, next to a standing stone with a hole in it. All pictures have the username (PolenthBlake) placed in the lower right corner.

Our last adventure was close to home, where local players have taken to gathering in a church lych gate. It has a roof and is in range of two PokéStops. The police had evidently been called, though not for one of the players. The person of interest to the police was someone who just couldn’t stop talking. “I didn’t do that. Well, maybe that one time, but not today. Okay, maybe more than once, but not in the last ten minutes.” I do wonder if crime will go down in that area (it has a particular problem with people dumping rubbish) due to the number of people with mobile phones there at all hours.

Heading home meant collecting my thoughts about the game. An obvious one was accessibility. For someone who can leave the house, it isn’t required to actually walk. It uses distance rather than detecting walking gait, so wheelchairs and mobility scooters can also travel the distance. Players don’t have to visit certain PokéStops and Gyms, so can stick to those in accessible areas. This isn’t a game that would work very well for someone who can’t leave the house. It is possible to catch a few Pokémon at home, but it’d mean not getting new supplies at the PokéStops, not being able to hatch eggs, and all the rest.

Catching Pokémon could be tricky for some people, as it requires swiping the ball in the right direction. Some sort of automatic throw on tap would have been a good idea. It’s not like it’d harm the game if some people used the feature who didn’t need it, as catching the Pokémon is more about enjoying the AR.

My main criticism of accessibility in a nutshell: there aren’t alternative ways for doing things or options to customise the game controls.

I also think the instructions need work, as so little is explained. This is particularly true of how to catch Pokémon, as it’s not clear that the player doesn’t have to move towards them, and can keep going until they’re safe before they tap them. For example, one popped up while I was crossing a road. I had time to cross the road and step to the side of the path (out of anyone else’s way), before tapping the Pokémon and starting the catching sequence. Someone who doesn’t know that might think they have to stop in the road or cross back to get closer to the Pokémon.

Criticisms aside, it’s a very fun game. It’s not required to buy things to take part, outside of paying phone costs. Moving between free Wi-Fi areas would be an alternative, as town centres often have PokéStops and Gyms and places with free Wi-Fi. It was fun to see so many others playing the game, including adults, families with young children, and groups of teenagers. People who weren’t playing were still discussing Pokémon, such as reminiscing about the previous games. Everyone who spoke to us was friendly. This was a welcome change, particularly given the current political climate, where the “Go back where you came from!” brigade is out in force.

All I need now is some more Bulbasaurs, so I can feed candy made from their ground-up bones to my own Bulbasaur, and take over the world for Team Mystic. It’s a simple goal.

Gone Home

Gone Home CoverDeveloper: The Fullbright Company
First Release: 15th August, 2013
Version Played: PlayStation 4
Length: Short
Available: PS Store US | PS Store UK | Xbox One | Steam

Katie returns home after touring Europe, only to find the house is empty. She has to piece together where everyone has gone from the clues left behind.

Though Katie is the character controlled by the player, this is primarily about her sister Sam. Finding notes and other objects triggers journal entries, written as though they were letters to Katie. Sam is a teenaged lesbian in the 1990s, and her story touches on dealing with her parents and finding her place in the world. In addition, Katie finds out more about her parents and the previous owner of the house.

There aren’t really any puzzles in the game, as it’s focused on story and exploration. It doesn’t get more complicated than finding a combination to open a lock.

I enjoyed the story. The voice acting was good, and it avoided a lot of the negative tropes that come with lesbian characters. I was a bit surprised it wasn’t a horror game, based on the way it’d been described to me. This is firmly based in the reality of family relationships.

The atmosphere in the house is well done. Floorboards creak whilst a storm rages outside. These things are on random timers, giving them an organic feel. There’s attention to detail with the rooms, making sure they have the expected everyday objects. Each family member has their own style, which shows in the things they own. That said, the realism of the house also means there isn’t anything very surprising around the corner.

I grew up in the 1990s, but in a very different environment to Sam. The whole angle of the feminist punk movement was new to me. The game has music (on cassettes that can be played), fanzines and badges for the bands. The commentary mode includes some thoughts from Corin Tucker, the singer from Heavens to Betsy. There’s a lot of interesting stuff in the commentary in general, so it’s worth playing a second time with it activated.

Accessibility is reasonable. The game has options to remove head movement, and has a crosshair in the centre by default. This helps reduce motion sickness issues. Subtitles and text overlays for notes are also options. There are a few flickering lights in places, but the flickers are short and don’t create a strong strobe effect.

This is an interesting game about growing up and relationships. The emotional narrative and attention to detail stood out as strengths. The short playtime could be an issue for gamers on a budget. There are themes of anti-gay prejudice in the main storyline, and child abuse is implied in the side narratives, though none of that is very graphic.

Among the Sleep

Among the Sleep CoverDeveloper: Krillbite Studio
First Release: 29th May, 2014
Version Played: PlayStation 4
Length: Short
Available: PS Store US | PS Store UK | Steam

On a two-year-old’s birthday, something goes very wrong. An unseen force enters the house at night. Armed only with a teddy bear, it’s time to find Mommy.

This is a game about creepy horror, rather than blood and gore. The world is a very scary place for a toddler. In an early stage, a strange noise sent me hiding under the furniture… only to realise it was the gurgling of a radiator, as heard through a toddler’s ears. That feeling of vulnerability meant I was carefully trying to climb down from furniture, as I was very aware that large falls could be an issue.

But as the game continues, the world gets increasingly unsafe. Those scary sounds might actually be monsters, and the only thing a toddler can do about them is hide. Sometimes escaping meant having to drop from heights, or climb things I wouldn’t have wanted to climb, because things would be worse if I didn’t.

Among The Sleep_20160313040514

Image Caption: A trophy achievement screenshot for “Baby Mozart”. A toddler’s view of themselves and a xylophone on the ground. The crosshair turns into a hand over the xylophone.

The gameplay is relatively simple. Puzzles are within what a toddler can do, such as moving chairs to reach door handles and throwing objects. The main focus is exploring and unravelling what’s going on. You can crawl (the fastest movement speed) and walk (not so fast, but better for seeing things). And run, but I didn’t find any need for that, as crawling is a lot faster and safer. Teddy is carried on your back most of the time, but can be hugged to provide light. He also occasionally offers advice on what to do.

Each of the levels has a different theme, but all of them have elements from the toddler’s home. A forest has furniture in it and a playground has decorations based on the child’s owl toy. It made things familiar, yet also strange. In addition to the main story, there’s a prologue giving more backstory on the relationship between the child’s parents.

Among The Sleep_20160406000948

Image Caption: A backlit playground, with an animal rocker. The crosshair is just about visible in the centre.

I felt the game did a good job of capturing the powerlessness of being a young child. It’s not just about physical strength and ability, but a lack of control over life. There are hints at family troubles from the start, but the child has no power over that. They can’t escape when things turn abusive. I also liked that it reinforced that no one is too young to be hurt by the bad things going on around them. They might not understand it in the same way as an adult, but that’s not the same as saying it doesn’t matter if they’re hurt because they won’t understand or remember it. I remember things back to when I was a baby, so I’ve always had a dim view of the idea that someone can be too young to be hurt.

My main criticism is the climbing mechanic. There’s a button to press to climb things, but at times it doesn’t work for no obvious reason. I had to shift around until finding the magic spot that would start the climb.

A small area of the closet level has flickering lights, which creates a strobe effect. It can be passed quickly, but it’s good to be ready for it. This game is also high on motion sickness triggers. The toddler gait sways. There’s a lot of camera movement climbing up things, and going from crawling to walking and back again. Despite that, I didn’t find it too bad on that front. There’s a crosshair in the middle of the screen, which helps to provide a stable point of reference. The sections are short, meaning it’s easy to schedule breaks. The crosshair and subtitles were on by default in the PlayStation version, which makes a nice change.

This is a great choice for fans of short atmospheric exploration games. It captures the feeling of being a scared child, and offers a perspective that’s rarely explored in games. Note that it does include themes of child abuse and alcoholism, as well as supernatural threats.

The Quiet Collection

The Quiet Collection CoverDeveloper: Nostatic Software
First Release: August, 2015
Version Played: PS Vita
Length: Short
Available: Amazon US (Android) | Amazon UK (Android) | Apple (iPhone / iPad) | PS Store US (PS Vita) | PS Store UK (PS Vita)

A girl doesn’t like noise and distraction, and she’ll do whatever it takes to make it stop. Between her parents, little brother, noisy neighbour and kittens/cat, there’s a lot to sort out before she gets peace and quiet.

The Quiet Collection is a bundle of four short adventure games. The games are also available separately on some platforms. They are: “Quiet, Please!”, “Quiet Christmas”, “Vacation Vexation” and “Candy, Please!” They have old-school pixel graphics and the puzzles are based on picking up and combining objects. Only one object can be carried at once, so it takes a little thought to get everything together.

Though it might not have been intended, the concept reminds me of Sensory Processing Disorder. In “Quiet, Please!” she wants to sleep after getting home from school. But small things, like a ticking clock, are too distracting. Even good things, like her pet kittens, need to be out of the room so she can sleep. The methods of getting those things are sometimes mischievous, but I empathised with wanting to make things as quiet as possible.

“Quiet Christmas” is also at her house. This time, she’s getting things sorted so she can sleep and wake for Christmas. It’s similar to the first game in general size and complexity. It does highlight that one of the issues is people not listening to what she wants, as the neighbour continues to sing Christmas carols when she wants him to stop. He can’t imagine why she wouldn’t want him singing.

The third game starts to mix up settings, by taking the family away on holiday. “Vacation Vexation” also has three mini-games, based on arcade classics: Face Invaders (Space Invaders), Badger (Frogger) and Karate Battle. This one had its moments, but I preferred wandering around the house making things quiet to wandering around a beach resort.

“Candy, Please!” is back home for Halloween. It has a larger playing area, as it includes visiting the neighbours. The puzzles are also a little trickier to work out, as they mainly consist of putting together multiple costumes. It takes a little more thought to work out what might go together to make an outfit.

I enjoyed these mini adventures (each one will probably take under an hour). The puzzles and concept are domestic, focusing on the girl and her normal family routine. They’re nice little games for relaxing. It was fun to see some things progress, like the kittens growing up into a cat (I’m assuming the other two kittens were rehomed, rather than combining into one mighty cat, but the game doesn’t say). I didn’t encounter any bugs or other issues, though there are times when the game won’t allow a puzzle solution that would work in real life.

It is worth noting the time it takes to finish them. They’re short, and will play the same way each time, which might be a factor in how much you’re willing to spend on them. Also the character speech is text-only. It’s fairly chunky text, but may be difficult to read on some screens for some people.

If you’re looking for a little adventure game nostalgia, and something not too stressful, this is a nice collection of games.

PlayStation Plus 2015 (Mini-Reviews)

This was my first year of PlayStation Plus. The service has a number of features, like cloud space to backup save files, and discounts on top of usual sale prices. But the one I’m focusing on here is the games. During 2015, there were two titles per console per month (PS4, PS3 and PS Vita). I had a PS4 and PS3 early on, and borrowed a Vita a few months in.

I only played games I thought I might like. This is mainly single player games with a story, with a preference for fantasy and science fiction. Which means I had a reasonable chance of liking the games, as I’d weeded out most of the ones I’d hate before I played them. It says bad things about the ones I hated anyway.

Where a game title is a link, it goes to a longer review of the game. I’ve given some estimates of playtime, though most titles on PS+ are on the shorter side. The consoles listed are for the version given away free… some of the games are available on the others too.

 

January

inFAMOUS: First Light (PS4) – Fetch has neon powers in a world where conduits (superpowered people) are illegal. When her brother is kidnapped, she uses her powers to find him, but risks being captured in the process. I didn’t initially like the game much, but I warmed up to it. As an introduction to the series, it’s a bit of a sharp learning curve (the combat tutorial comes after the first fight, for example). The neon powers are nice and the game does play smoothly. The world was a little generic feeling though. [3D Action]

The Swapper (PS4 | PS3 | PS Vita) – A person in a spacesuit is launched in an escape pod and lands on a planet. She soon discovers a device called the swapper, which create clones and swaps the mind/soul between them. The basic gameplay is a puzzle game, using the swapper device. What makes this game is the intriguing storyline that binds the puzzle rooms together. As more of the area is accessed, there are a number of mysteries. What are the rocks everywhere? What happened to the crew? What does the swapper really do? And who is in that spacesuit? The art style is also unique, as it’s made from found objects, rather than being computer generated. This is a great puzzle game, with a good balance of story to puzzles. [2D Puzzle Platformer]

Prototype 2 (PS3) – While James Heller is serving in the military, a zombie virus outbreak leads to his wife and daughter being killed by the infected. When he returns, he ends up infected with a form of the virus that turns him into a superhuman. In this game, you can literally pull someone’s arms off and beat them with them. Which does get a bit gory, but I found it too over-the-top to really take seriously. The thing that’s unsettling is the oppression. The people in the quarantine zones are treated terribly, in a way that’s not too far from the real world. James is initially taken in for experiments, which is chilling given the history of using black people for unethical medical experimentation in the USA. That atmosphere, and a smooth superpowered combat system, make for an interesting game. The weakest parts were its handling of women (it starts with fridging his family, which sets the tone here) and not fleshing out some of the subplots very well. [3D Action]

 

February

Apotheon (PS4) – The Gods of Olympus abandon humans. A man called Nikandreos fights his way to Olympus to claim their powers and save humanity. I was taken by the art style of the game, which is based on Greek pottery. The gameplay was reasonable in the bit I tried. The thing I couldn’t get used to was the audio, as it played through only one ear at a time, depending on which way the character was facing. This probably sounds fine with speakers, but it’s really odd (and difficult to hear anything, especially when it’s my bad ear) with headphones. This game needed a headphone mix or an option to turn off directional sound. Probably a fun game if you have speakers. I might come back to it at some point and turn the sound off. [2D Adventure]

Transistor (PS4) – A failed attempt on Red’s life leaves her unable to speak. Her friend’s body is killed, but his voice lives on in the Transistor, the giant sword used to attack her. They hunt down her attackers and find out what’s happening in the city of Cloudbank. Transistor is cyberpunk meets art nouveau in terms of style. The combat is pseudo turn based with a detailed skills system. The mystery of what’s going on, and the nature of Cloudbank, is interesting… if somewhat tragic. It has some QUILTBAG representation, which had some issues (note the tragic part), but I did appreciate that one of the profiles was for a non-binary person. [Isometric RPG]

Thief (PS3) – Garrett is a thief, who decides he knows best and steals one of his friend’s tools. She ends up hurt / possibly dead when she doesn’t have the tool when she needs it. Garrett has angst. This game started glitching on me from the start. The tutorial stopped giving me instructions, and the subtitles in the first chapter were completely out of sync. That said, the glitches aren’t why I stopped playing. I intended to go back, but there were always other games I wanted to play more. It suffered from being passable, rather than something I was excited to play. Will Garrett stop angsting or is the smokey eyeshadow forever? I might never know. [3D Stealth]

 

March

Valiant Hearts: The Great War (PS4) – The story of several people living during World War I. This is an educational puzzle game, which covers the main events in the war. Collectibles are items from the time period, which give additional historical facts. The focus is on the hardships of everyday people, rather than glorifying battle. Cartoon graphics act to soften the gore, though it doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to showing the emotional tragedy of war. This is a well-crafted game, but the theme meant I couldn’t play it for very long in one sitting. [2D Puzzle Adventure]

Papo & Yo (PS3) – Quico escapes from his abusive father into a fantasy world, where his best friend is Monster. But Monster is addicted to eating frogs, which send him into violent rages. This game is based on the developer’s experience of an abusive alcoholic father, which shows in the careful handling of the topic. Quico tries to take on responsibility for Monster, by removing frogs where he can, and searching for a cure for Monster’s problem. But the game doesn’t look to blame Quico for Monster’s (or his father’s) behaviour, even if at times he blames himself. In terms of puzzles, the world looks realistic, with buildings and streets. Until buildings grow legs and walk or stairs are pulled out of walls. I felt the puzzles could have gone up in difficulty a little more during the game, and there are some rough edges on the graphics (like character mouths not moving during speech), but this is a unique game dealing with a difficult topic. [3D Puzzle Adventure]

Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments (PS3) – Holmes and Watson set out to solve a number of tricky cases. The main gameplay is finding clues and interviewing people, with some puzzles and QTEs on the way. Unlike many detective games, the player can choose any of the suspects. Pick the first one that pops up based on circumstantial evidence, or keep going until you’ve found all the possible suspects. There is a right or wrong answer, but the game doesn’t stop you choosing the wrong one. This makes it the best detective game I’ve played for actual detective work. In criticisms, the overall story linking the cases wasn’t very strong. I’d have liked to find some more hints of that during the cases. The loading times were a little long. It’s debatable if the green mystic guy was intended to be the most stereotypical mystic Asian possible (as in, he may have been acting that way to sell stuff to London’s elite), but he didn’t get enough character time to really know. [3D Detective]

CounterSpy (PS4 | PS3 | PS Vita) – You work for a secret agency, trying to stop the world’s superpowers from blowing up the moon. With digs at the cold war (with both sides being as destructive as each other), this game has its funny moments. The big issue is the procedurally generated levels. Technically it means it’s replayable. The reality is the random levels can turn out to be impossible for the current character progression…. or too easy. They can be restarted infinitely to get a level design that works, but it does get tedious. Very soon, all the levels start to look the same. [2.5D Shooter]

 

April

Never Alone (PS4) – When an endless blizzard hits, Nuna and Fox head out into the storm to find the source. This game is a reimagining of an Iñupiat (Alaska Native peoples) story, produced in collaboration with the community. As well as the puzzle platformer gameplay, there are little videos explaining things about the stories and culture. The atmosphere is great, with the endless winds and various spirits that help or hinder the friends along the way. It can be played as a two-player co-op or alone (switching between the characters). For the most part, it’s fairly easy, but single player mode can have some issues with the AI of the other character putting them in danger. [2D Puzzle Platformer]

Aaru’s Awakening (PS4 | PS3) – Aaru is a war machine from an ancient war, who is awakened to fight a new threat. Interesting idea and lovely artwork. However, it comes complete with clunky controls and a narrator who sounds like a child being forced to read in class. As well as the controls, the gameplay focuses exclusively on speedrunning the levels. So there’s never really time to stop and look at the art, experience any sort of story (outside of the awful narrated sections) or learn about the world. If you want a platformer where the biggest challenge is the controls, and there’s no content outside of doing everything really fast, this might be for you. This was the worst game I tried all year. [2D Puzzle Platformer]

MonsterBag (PS Vita) – Nia leaves her bag behind when she goes to school. But the bag is a monster, who sets out to find her. This is a puzzle game where the bag has to travel along a line of people to reach Nia. The early levels involved finding items and using them/giving them to people to clear the path along the line. I enjoyed the start, as it was something a bit different, though could have done without the cannibals trope part. The big problem was the later levels discarded this concept, and instead become about precisely timed jumps between near-identical line members. I’d have liked the game a lot more if it’d stuck with that opening puzzle concept. But as it was, the end was rather generic compared to the beginning. [2D Puzzle]

 

May

Ether One (PS4) – You work as a restorer, going into the minds of dementia patients to help them regain their memories. This time, the memories centre around Pinwheel, a Cornish village, and the mining disaster that happened there years ago. Players can either just explore (finding ribbons) or can stop to do puzzles (put together projectors, which give more story information). I felt the game did a good job of presenting the confusion of dementia. Memories were in fragments and blurred into each other, making it hard to piece together exactly what went on. The initial release on PS4 was buggy, but after the patches, this was an enjoyable game (though sad in places, given the theme). [3D Adventure]

Hohokum (PS4 | PS3 | PS Vita) – A snake plays hide-and-seek with their snake friends. This is an exploration game, where the exact objectives are left for the player to discover. Completing tasks can help reveal the hidden snake in every world. Or just wander around the colourful scenery seeing what everything does. I enjoyed the art style and gameplay of this one, as I’m a fan of exploration games. However, it isn’t a good choice if you like games with clear objectives. [2D Exploration]

The Unfinished Swan (PS4 | PS3 | PS Vita) – When Monroe’s mother dies, he keeps her favourite painting: an unfinished swan. The swan disappears one night and he follows it into a strange world. This is a shooter with a difference, as it’s about shooting paint at the environment. The first level is completely blank and the player has to paint it to see where they’re going. No game mechanic overstays its welcome, as each level uses the paint shooting in different ways. It’s a sweet story, of a boy finding out more about his family, that captures the storybook feel perfectly. Note that the whiteness of early levels may cause migraine issues for some players. [3D Shooter Adventure]

Race the Sun (PS4 | PS3 | PS Vita) – A solar ship has to race towards the sunset, to avoid losing power. This is an endless runner, with basic geometric graphics. It’s a solid example of the genre, and has the usual expected features (like missions to achieve during the runs and levelling up). I was too terrible at it to get a lot out of it, as I died too quickly. But it’s not a bad title for someone looking for an endless runner to play. [3D Endless Runner]

Murasaki Baby (PS Vita) – Baby is looking for Mommy and needs you to guide her. Baby lives in a creepy world of monsters, where everyone has their mouth on top of their head (including Baby). Creepily cute would be a good description of the art style. This game is also very much a Vita game. The player leads Baby by taking her hand with the front touchpad, and the background can be changed by swiping the back touchpad. Some levels require turning the Vita upside-down. It uses the Vita features in a way most games don’t. This can be awkward at times, but the game is only a few hours, so it’s not too bad. (Putting the Vita into flight mode is recommended for earning trophies). [2D Puzzle Platformer]

 

June

Super Exploding Zoo! (PS4 | PS Vita) – This is made by the same developers as Hohokum, but is a very different game. It’s a puzzle game solved by directing herds of exploding animals to destroy aliens. Nothing wrong with it really, but it wasn’t enough to keep my attention for long. I like a bit more story with my puzzles. [2D Puzzle]

 

July

Rocket League (PS4) – Rocket-powered cars play football (soccer). It has online multiplayer and offline single-player modes. I’m not a big fan of sports games, but thought this looked interesting enough to try. It was fun enough for me to get the trophies, but it’s not something I’d play for a long time. However, it’s not because the game is bad. It’s polished and the online games could keep a sports fan entertained for a long time. This is a better investment than the big name sports titles where they’ll close the servers after a few months. [3D Sports]

MouseCraft (PS4 | PS3 | PS Vita) – A cat scientist runs experiments on mice, to power his mysterious machine. This puzzle game is like a cross between Lemmings and Tetris. The player places tetromino blocks to create a path for the mice. The larger story is barely there, so there’s not a lot to get invested in. This is the sort of puzzle game that fills a few minutes here and there. [2D Puzzle]

Entwined (PS4 | PS3 | PS Vita) – A fish and a bird are in love across many lifetimes. Entwined is a rhythm game. The fish and bird fly down a tunnel, and each stick on the controller moves one of them. They have to hit patterns in order to reach the end of each lifetime, where they combine to form a dragon. The main part of the game is pretty relaxing, though the challenge mode is not. [Rhythm]

Rain (PS3) – A boy sees an invisible girl being chased by invisible monsters, due to them showing in the rain. He heads out to follow them, becoming invisible himself. This is a short adventure, with puzzles based around being visible in the rain, and invisible outside of the rain. I enjoyed the melancholy atmosphere and rain-based puzzles. It’s a reasonably easy game, though note it doesn’t have spoken narration. [3D Puzzle Adventure]

 

August

Sound Shapes (PS4 | PS3 | PS Vita) – A platform game where everything makes music. Collecting notes on the way adds beats to the score. This is pretty fun. There’s not a lot else to say about it, as there’s no hidden depth or storylines here. If you like the sound of a musical platformer, you might enjoy this. [2D Platformer]

Stealth Inc. 2: A Game of Clones (PS4 | PS3 | PS Vita) – A clone escapes in a factory and works to free other clones. Death is a minor inconvenience in this game, making it easier to travel around and complete the various puzzle rooms. Perfecting the rooms is a little harder. [2D Puzzle Platformer]

 

September

Grow Home (PS4) – BUD the robot is collecting star seeds to save his planet. But first, he has to grow the star plant to the stratosphere so that it’ll flower. Robots, giant star plants, and the occasional mushroom, made this game right up my alley. BUD’s controls take a little getting used to, as gravity is low on the planet (easy to run off things) and climbing is done by controlling each arm separately. There is a clear visual and sound to let you know when a hand has grabbed on successfully, so this isn’t too bad with a bit of patience. Later on, he gets faster ways to travel. My only real complaint is one of the skins for BUD was a tad dubious (a Native skin, with a feather, that makes BUD closer to nature… might as well have called it the Noble Savage skin), but this is a small optional thing. You can remain as default BUD and grow your plant to space without that. Overall, a fun little game with a cute robot. [3D Exploration]

Teslagrad (PS4 | PS3) – A boy flees his home chased by people. A steampunk puzzle game sounded like my sort of thing, but this just didn’t grab me. I think one of the issues is the story was told by tiny pictures found on scrolls, which were hard enough to see, let alone interpret. I didn’t end up getting very far, as I was indifferent to it. There’s nothing really wrong with the game as such. It plays well enough. It just didn’t have that extra spark. [2D Puzzle Platformer]

 

October

Broken Age (PS4 |PS Vita) – Vella is about to be offered as a sacrifice to a monster to save her village. Shay lives on a spaceship and is bored by his repetitive routine. Broken Age is a point-and-click adventure following the lives of the two teens. It’s reminiscent of older point-and-clicks, with quirky characters and jokes. The puzzles are the object collection/combination style typical of the genre. It’s an entertaining game, though I enjoyed Vella’s side of the story more than Shay’s. [Point-and-Click Adventure]

Unmechanical Extended (PS4 | PS3) – A little helicopter robot is kidnapped, and has to escape from an underground facility. Also included is the extended adventure, where two robots are kidnapped and work together to escape (not a co-op thing… you only control one of them). I found most of the puzzles straightforward. There’s no moon logic here, so not a lot to get stuck on. The atmosphere of the underground base is great and I loved the robot design. Don’t expect to find out the wider story though, as that’s left to player interpretation. This was a fun little game to fill a few hours. [2D Puzzle Adventure]

 

November

The Walking Dead: Season Two (PS4) – Clementine is a child survivor in a zombie apocalypse. This is an interactive story, so is mainly listening to dialogue and doing a few QTEs. The issue being I didn’t care much about the story. Because it’s so unrelentingly bleak, and because everyone dies, it makes the story rather pointless. You make a choice that a character will remember, but they die in the next scene, so the choice was irrelevant. There aren’t any stable character relationships to get behind, because of the whole death thing. The texturing on the QTE prompts also made them difficult for me to see and follow (though at least the sequences were pretty easy and could be repeated). It passed the time and was fine as a free game, but not something I’d pay out for on a budget. [3D Interactive Story]

 

December

Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon (PS3) – This short title is a completely separate story to the main Far Cry 3 game. It’s set in the early 2000s, as might have been written by people in the 1980s. Nuclear wastelands, lots of cyborgs and neon, and so forth. Though I could appreciate the retro setting, I found the gameplay rather average. [3D Shooter]

King’s Quest – Chapter 1: A Knight to Remember (PS4) – An elderly King Graham tells stories to his granddaughter about how he went from no one to king, starting with how he became a knight. This is a light-hearted fantasy adventure story, with quirky character and puns. I liked that a number of the puzzles had multiple solutions (and which solution is chosen can affect how other characters view Graham). It was longer than I expected for an episodic game (around five hours for this episode). I plan to get a season pass to continue with the story at some point. [Adventure]

 

2015 Overview

I enjoyed enough of the games to get value for money. A year’s subscription was £40 in 2015, at a time when the average big game costs £40-£60, and the average smaller game costs around £10. Even with sale prices, I’d have struggled to get this many games for £40. I’m looking forward to next year.

Top Five: This was difficult, as I liked a lot of the games. In no particular order…

  • The Swapper
  • Transistor
  • Never Alone
  • Grow Home
  • King’s Quest

Bottom Five: I feel bad for four of the five games here, as I didn’t hate them. I just didn’t love them. They’re not in the same league as Aaru’s Awakening, which I hated. But I suppose it’s a good thing I didn’t have five games I truly despised.

  • Aaru’s Awakening
  • Thief
  • Super Exploding Zoo!
  • Apotheon
  • Teslagrad